Eloquent novel of aviator Beryl Markham and colonial Africa


Circling the Sun: A Novel - Paula McLain

I didn’t so much read this novel about early aviator Beryl Markham as feel it, being swept up into the wild, diverse world of colonial Africa every time I opened the book. Normally I much prefer biography to any fictionalized version of a real person’s life, especially someone like Markham who’s penned a wonderful account of her own adventures, but Paula McLain brings Markham to life on the page by writing her rather amazing story with such insight and feeling that while I was reading the book it seemed impossible that McLain hadn’t lived it all herself. In an author’s note at the end she explains some of the strong connection she felt with Markham.


Circling the Sun covers the first part of Markham’s life, from her rough and tumble early childhood, through the beginning of her almost life-long career training race horses, until her record setting flight across the Atlantic–a time that extends from the turn of the last century to the interval between the two world wars. Her story is rich with rift valley scenery, intersecting cultures, and interesting people, including native Africans, Asian immigrants, and European colonials. Markham maintained a close, family-like like relationship with the the Kipsigis man who was her best friend in childhood, and she mingled with the likes of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa), Denys Finch Hatton (a lover of both Blixen and Markham–Dinesen left Markham out of her book), the many times married Idina Sackville (Nancy Mitford’s model for The Bolter in her book The Pursuit of Love) and the future (if brief) King Edward VIII.  


McLain, a poet as well as a novelist, writes with eloquent beauty. She made what I think is a bold choice to tell the story in the first person, but for me it worked, pulling me in so I felt like I was walking around under the Kenyan sun myself. Not being a big fan of Hemingway I hadn’t read McLain’s earlier book, The Paris Wife, when it came out, but I will certainly be getting my hands on a copy now.


I read an advanced review copy of Circling the Sun supplied to me at no cost by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.

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An amaz conclusion for a totally zan series!


Earth Flight - Janet  Edwards

Earth Flight is the third book in this series featuring Jarra, a feisty, junk food loving, slang savvy, far-in-the-future girl who’s handicapped by having an immune system that won’t allow her to portal off of the home planet, so if you haven’t read the first two books, this isn’t the place to start, but if you’ve enjoyed the others it would be nardle to miss this one because it’s a totally zan conclusion. At least I think it’s the close of a trilogy, but I’d love another book and this one ends with Jarra still having lots left to do. If this is the end I’m going to hate leaving this totally amaz universe behind.


In the previous book Jarra and her twoing partner Fian managed to send a message to the alien ship parked just above Earth, which keeps the young couple involved in the government’s first contact project, so now Jarra is juggling military duties, history of early humanity classes, dangerous dig site field work at the ruins of once magnificent Earth cities, and her relationship with Fian, which goes through a lot of changes in the story.


One of the things I’ve loved best about this series is how thoroughly Janet Edwards has developed the diverse cultures of the far flung off-Earth settlements, and we learn more them all in this book, especially the somewhat notorious Beta clans since Jarra has discovered she’s one of them. This isn’t a perfectly written series, but it’s “flaws” have actually seemed to enhance my pleasure. There’s info dumping, but it’s fascinating since the future Edwards imagines is so detailed and interesting, and Jarra can be a bit of a Mary Sue (though that’s less in this third book), but she’s utterly charming anyway because she’s so good natured and full of enthusiasm.


If you love this series check out Janet Edwards’s website for 8 free prequel stories that further explore all the off-Earth colonies.  Link here 

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Of Noble Family: Glamourist Histories Book 5, by Mary Robinette Kowal – A Review

Austenprose - A Jane Austen Blog

Of Noble Family Mary Robinette Kowal 2015 x 200I am going to miss Jane and Vincent, Mary Robinette’s heroes in her acclaimed Glamourist Histories series. Of Noble Family is the married couple’s fifth and final adventure set in an alternate Regency Britain enhanced by glamour, the loveliest system of magic I’ve encountered. But while their glamoured displays are often breathtaking, Jane and Vincent have taken ether-based illusions far beyond the ubiquitous drawing room decorations created by accomplished young women. In previous books they’ve found practical, if hair-raising, applications for glamour in the war against Napoleon, the Luddite riots, and an escapade involving pirates on the Mediterranean. For this last story the couple will be off to the Caribbean.

When the book opens, Jane and Vincent have been resting after their harrowing exploits on the Italian Island of Murano and enjoying the company of Jane’s family, especially her sister Melody’s new baby boy, who is already showing a precocious…

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Fascinating and heart-rending–Ordinary Lives in North Korea


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick

The hardships of living in a once modern country that no longer has enough reliable electricity to cool its citizen’s home refrigerators or run the now defunct factories where they used to work are more than I could have imagined and heart-rending, but there is at least one advantage. When the sun sets the country goes completely dark, it’s a blank spot on nighttime satellite photos and the starry sky must be amazing to see, which provides cover to young teenage lovers who otherwise would be prevented from meeting by their scared conservative families, their class conscious society, and their frighteningly punitive government.


North Korea is one of the most culturally isolated nations on the planet, which makes this poignant and descriptive book about the personal lives and families of six former residents of Chonhjin, a city in a northern outpost of the country far from what any foreigner would see, a testament to Barbara Demick’s patience, perseverance, and humanity. While working as a journalist in South Korea Demick was able to meet and spend considerable time with of many former residents of that region–her reasoning was that she would be able to verify facts more easily if she talked to people who were all connected to one place–and she’s created a surprisingly complete and moving picture of their lives.


Part of what makes the book so interesting is how varied the six people Demick profiles are. Some lived on the fringes of North Korean society even before the famine and infrastructure breakdown, others were formerly loyal party members only gradually disillusioned by the dysfunction and corruption of their government, and two were teenage lovers who could only meet in darkness.


The North Korean government does not come off well in this book, but neither do the Allied powers who made such a mess of Korea after WWII and then followed it up with the devastating Korean War. Dystopian fiction pales next to the gripping real stories told in Nothing to Envy, but since the people Demick talked with were resourceful during their almost unimaginable difficulties and have all escaped to make new lives in South Korea the book isn’t flatly bleak.

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First Nations odyssey with a scrappy, vision bedeviled heroine


Monkey Beach - Eden Robinson

I could not resist the narrative voice of this earthy, augury filled, family rich story set in the First Nations Haisla community of western Canada. Nineteen year old Lisamarie is generally fearless and never takes guff from anyone–she’ll launch herself at a gang of bullies without hesitation and her uncle affectionately calls her monster–but the nighttime visits she receives from a small, wild, red haired man terrify her because they always precede a death or tragedy. It’s a visionary “gift” she discovers runs in her family, though no one talks much about anymore so she’s mostly on her own with it.


When her younger brother Jimmy is lost at sea Lisamarie embarks on a solo speedboat trip up the Pacific coast driven by guilt, fear and grief, determined to find him or his body. Her vivid memories and visions along the way take the story all the way back to her early childhood and into the land of the dead.

The ending? It’s somewhat hallucinatory, not something I could confidently articulate, but I was swept along anyway. With writing that’s beautiful and raw, this book is a colorful, sometimes dizzying odyssey, filled with ghosts, poverty, kinship ties, Haisla culture, Sasquatch monkey men, and the grit and wonder of the natural world.


Many thanks to BrokenTune who brought this book to my attention. Her review is here.

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Beautifully written, uncompromisingly dark


The Lola Quartet - Emily St. John Mandel

2014’s Station Eleven captivated me with its story of life after a pandemic flu caused the collapse of society, and The Lola Quartet, an earlier novel by the same author, shares many of Station Eleven’s story elements, including a life during crisis theme, though here the disasters are on a smaller scale.


Gavin is unsettled by the news that he may have fathered a daughter by a troubled high school girlfriend who disappeared–so unsettled he makes mistakes that sabotage his NYC career as a reporter, though print journalism is in its death throes anyway and his paper shut down not long after he was fired. He moves back to Florida because an economic crash similar to (or the same as) the one of 2007-2008 has created a job opportunity for him with his sister, whose work involves foreclosing on homes–she has to use a punching bag to work off the stress. In his free time Gavin uses his investigative skills to try to find his old girlfriend and his daughter.


It’s a fraught enterprise, and he’s warned off it at every turn, but locating his missing daughter is not something Gavin can let go of. In the process he reconnects with the other members of his high school jazz quartet–his girlfriend’s half-sister was the drummer–but everyone’s life has changed drastically since the almost magical evening of their final concert outdoors on the back of a truck, and no one seems able or willing to help him.


As in Station Eleven there are several third person narrators, the writing is beautiful and evocative, and the story is riveting, moving, and complex. Both novels unfold while shifting back and forth in time, revealing information slowly–a technique that irritates me in some books, but author Emily St. John Mandel makes it feel artful. Though The Lola Quartet doesn’t involve the almost total disintegration of civilization, strangely it’s a darker, less hopeful tale than Station Eleven, with moral dilemmas and needless but inevitable tragedy giving it an uncompromising, maybe noirish feel.

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